During the Sidney Crosby era, it seems that the one key component that is the cause for the numerous untimely exits from the playoffs has been a physical defenseman. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been lacking a defenseman that can change the momentum of a game or series with a single hit. They are lacking a defenseman who is willing to defend his teammates without any regard for his own safety. They are missing the type of defenseman who can shut down and intimidate the top players in the league, which makes them ineffective. The Penguins however used to have such a defenseman, his name Darius Kasparaitis. Recently I had the honor of interviewing one of the most feared NHL defenseman to ever play the game.
One of the biggest memories that most Pittsburgh Penguin fans remember about Darius Kasparaitis was the hit that he placed on Eric Lindros which knocked him out, therefore we discussed that first. Before the hit, the Flyers were viewed as the more physical team out of the two. The hit on Lindros changed that and changed the dynamics of the rivalry. Darius stated that the rivalry before the hit was intense, but after the hit it was at a much higher level. When asked about what he was thinking when the hit occurred, he stated that all he was doing was looking for someone with their head down on the power play and that player just happened to be Eric. He stated that typically there are not a lot of big hits on a power play and he liked looking to make one on the power play. Darius stated that all he was trying to do is finish his check and unfortunately Eric got knocked out and eventually started his concussion problems. He said that he never wanted to injure anyone with his hits and regrets the impact on Eric and his career from the hit.
The Penguins played the Flyers in Philadelphia the next day after the hit. Darius stated that his teammates and him were received by the Flyer fans with bomb threats to the bus, threats to the hotel they were staying at, threating phone calls to the hotel room he was staying to name a few. He stated that he was never afraid to play the game that he loved until that day. He was not sure what would happen to him as the Flyers and their fans wanted his head. During the game the threats continued from the Flyer players as he recalls he hardly spent any time on the ice because he was in the penalty box trying to survive the game in which he was forced to defend himself.
It seems for all of the hype around the hit there was actually no animosity between Eric and Darius. Darius called to check on him and apologize for the damage that his hit did and Eric stated that they were good and it was part of the game. Eric did not view the hit as malicious and accepted it for what it was a solid hit by a physical player. This respect led to a surprising turn of events. When Darius was a free agent it was Eric Lindros who called him up and asked that he would join him with the Rangers. He respected Darius as a player and wanted him to be his teammate. Darius stated that Eric was the reason that he went to play for the Rangers. Darius stated that he considers Eric like a brother and will always have a special bond with him.
When asked about a funny story that maybe the Pittsburgh fans may not have heard of he gave the following tale. He was in the car with Robbie Brown and Brian Bonin driving in downtown Pittsburgh. They had the car in the crosswalk and the car behind them started to beep at them. Darius without looking flipped of the driver of the honking car without a second thought. All of the sudden there were flashing lights behind them as it was a cop that he just flipped off. He quickly started to get nervous as he thought that the cop may rough him up or make him disappear which occurred when he was a kid in the U.S.S.R. Robbie and Brian immediately started to help fuel his anxiety which quickly turned into to fear by numerous comments about being taken away and being deported since he was not from this country. As the cop approached the car Darius was extremely worried and stressed about the situation. When Robbie brown rolled down his window Darius apologized and stated he did not realize he was a cop. Robbie Brown flashed a smile and invited the cop to come watch them play that night. The situation was easily defused by a little charm and Penguin tickets. Darius now finds the humor in the whole situation, but at the time he did not find it as funny as his teammates did.
One of the stories that a lot of Penguin fans are aware of is the fight that Darius Kasparaitis and Mario Lemieux had while Darius was playing for the New York Islanders. Darius stated that he did not intend to fight Mario, but he felt that Mario cross checked him in the back and one thing led to another and the next thing they were fighting. He said when he joined the Penguins in 1996 that Mario joked with him about the fight. He also stated that Mario said that the team needed to start wearing shoulder pads during practice because of Darius. After that comment the Penguin coaches agreed and made shoulder pads during practice a requirement.
Prior to Darius joining the Penguins the players did not wear shoulder pads during practice. Another legendary story about Darius Kasparaitis is that he punched his own goalie, IIdar Mukhometov, after a World Junior Championship Game. Darius stated that the reason that he did it is that his team lost the game due to the goalie letting in 7 goals. The part that sent him over the edge was the team that they were playing against was not a good team. He stated that after the incident that no one on the team said anything to him about it. He did however mention that goalie play was never an issue again for that team while he was on it.
When asked about the highlight of his career he stated there were many things that people may cite as the highlight such as the hit on Lindros or the playoff game series winner in overtime against Hall of Famer Dominick Hasek in which he was simply just trying to get the puck on the net. While he recognizes that these plays have a special place for the fans, he has two highlights of his career. The first one is being drafted in the NHL and playing his first NHL game. He stated the first time there is nothing else like that as you are both nervous and excited all at the same time. He stated the other highlight in his career was being called up from juniors and playing for the Russia National team with all his idols at the age of 16. He stated that he was not a hitter then and he was known as a great skater. He got to play two shifts that game and felt that it was like a dream come true. Russia’s National team was one of the premier teams in the world and to play with his childhood heroes was something he only dreamed of doing.
Darius got interested in playing hockey when he was a boy and they came to his school to recruit hockey players and he signed up. The reason that he wanted to play is that he loved to skate. After he started playing he always wanted to push himself to the next level. This drive is what excelled his career and catapulted him into the NHL. He was not known as a physical player growing up, but he laid a big hit on a player and saw the momentum of the game shift on that hit along with the crowd’s reaction. That fueled him to want to start to hit more and more as he saw how the game could be impacted by a big hit just as easy as a goal.
Darius had the privilege to play with and against some of the greatest players in the NHL. When pressed about which player was the best player he ever played with he stated it was Jaromir Jagr. He stated that Jagr was a large part of his career and was a leader. Playing with a player of that skill level throughout your career makes you appreciate what that player brings to the game. He stated that the hardest players to play against were players such as Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg due to their small size and quick speed.
So a lot of people are wondering what is Darius up to now. Darius is living in Miami and traveling to Sweden often for his wife’s clothing company LIVLY which is one of the largest Swedish children’s clothing companies. He assists his wife with the company when needed, but he is primarily responsible for taking care of his 5 kids and getting prepared for another one which is on the way. When he was asked what he missed most about playing in the NHL he stated beside the paycheck, the team chemistry. He stated that team is everything in the NHL and any player past or present has respect for one another. He considers the NHL like a brotherhood which he is proud to be a member.
Finally we asked Darius about the state of the game now versus when he played. He stated that the game now is a little softer than when he played. He believes that this is due to the fact the NHL is cracking down on big hits and fining people for hits. The rules have changed to attempt to make the game safer for the players. He stated that hitting has become a lost art because of these changes. Darius stated that when you hit someone it is tough to control the hit since the game is moving so fast. There are too many moving pieces which makes it almost impossible to know exactly where you are going to hit a player. Darius stated that if he was playing in the current NHL he would not change the way that he plays, but he would probably be suspended for 10 games and fined for many of his hits. When he played he was only suspended for one game in his entire career.
Every fan wants a player like Darius Kasparaitis on the current roster to be an intimidating physical presence for the team. After speaking with Darius it seems that the rules have changed in a way that such a player is becoming extinct. Even though the game is changing, we all still hope for a player like Darius Kasparaitis to don the Penguins jersey and be the player that gets us to lord Stanley.
*Big thanks to @michaeltgrayson for all the help with the interview!